When I was in college, I heard a phrase that changed my life: “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
I’m not exaggerating when I say this quote deeply changed the way I view life. I had never been truly aware of how often I compared myself to others, and I didn’t realize how harmful it had been, to let my joy be defined by others’ circumstances. It seems like a pithy quote that could be on a mug or an inspirational poster, but it’s life-changing. When a friend shared it with me in college, it hit me hard. I realized I couldn’t experience joy – and I couldn’t be truly grateful – if I was comparing my life to someone else’s.
In the past week, I’ve had a few conversations about this quote, and someone I follow on Twitter blogged about it, so I’ve been thinking about it a lot.
When I first encountered this quote, I was probably 19, and at that point in my life, I felt very insecure about a lot of things. Because of that, I used to always think of comparison in a way that made me feel less-than. I realized I compared myself to other people in ways that glorified their traits, talents and circumstances. I compared myself to other people – mostly women:
- If I saw someone thin, it made me feel fat.
- If someone in my class answered professors’ questions better than I did, I felt like I wasn’t smart enough.
- If someone started dating a great guy, I wondered why no guy was interested in me.
- If someone got engaged, I felt like I would be alone forever.
- If someone got a great job after graduation, I felt inferior.
Of course, I didn’t feel bad every single time I saw a thin person, but we all have good days and bad days, confidence-wise, so sometimes skinny girls made me feel bad and sometimes they didn’t.
But when I realized I was allowing these comparisons to dictate the amount of joy I was experiencing, it became easier to stop comparing myself to others so much.
As I’ve moved on past college, I’ve continued to struggle with comparing myself to others, although some of the ways those feelings manifest are different. However, I’ve continued to be amazed by how much life sucks when I compare myself to other people. Because there will always be someone thinner, smarter, funnier, and more successful, and that’s OK. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve learned that when I allow myself to compare my life to others’ lives, it robs me of the opportunity to be grateful. It’s impossible to be thankful when you’re constantly comparing yourself to others.
And I’ve learned how toxic this can be to friendships. When something good happens to a friend (they get a promotion, lose weight, get married, have a baby, go on a nice vacation, buy a great new dress), if you respond by comparing it to your own life, you’ve created a double-whammy of non-joyfulness. Because not only are you robbing yourself of thankfulness for your own circumstances (for instance, maybe I didn’t get a promotion, but of course I’m still grateful for my job!), you’re also robbing your friend of the support she deserves. How much richer are friendships when you know your friends are truly celebrating with you? That, when they say, “I’m so happy for you – congratulations!” they really mean it?
So, I’ve always looked at this phrase – “comparison is the thief of joy” – in one specific way. To me, it has always meant that, if I’m focused on what other people do, or have, or look like, then it’ll be difficult to experience joy.
But recently, I’ve discovered the flip-side.
Instead of thinking, “I wish I were like that,” which is putting the other person on a pedestal, I sometimes think, “I’m glad I’m not like that,” which knocks the person right off the pedestal. It’s still making a comparison, but instead of feeling bad about myself, it’s trying to make myself feel better.
Here’s a hypothetical example: a friend gets a big raise and decides to move into a huge, beautiful new place. On one extreme, I could think, “She’s so lucky – I wish I had enough money to do that!” which is harmful – because if I’m jealous of her home, I can no longer be thankful for mine. But on the other extreme, I’m tempted to think, “Well that’s a big waste of money… she’s materialistic.” But no! That reaction is just as bad! Because at the root, I’m still using her situation to impact how joyful I’m going to let myself be.
So what would the proper response be? To celebrate the fact that she’s doing so well at work. My response should be centered around her life – not how her life compares to mine.
This sounds pretty simple, and yet, I find myself struggling with it a lot.
I thought I had mastered the art of not comparing myself to others, until I realized I still do it – I just swing in the opposite direction. I don’t often feel bad that I’m not as good as someone else, but I sometimes find it difficult to really celebrate with others without internally criticizing them.
And that’s just as damaging.
Around the same time I first heard this quote in college, I was reading a lot of Henri Nouwen (why don’t I do that anymore? I should.). I read his piece about moving from solitude to community to ministry, which was so impactful that I kept the article in my Bible for years. It may or may not still be there… I have used the Bible on my iPhone for the past three years, so I wouldn’t know.
I think the reason I have struggled with comparing myself to others is because I often don’t look to God for my security. If I jockey for position with my friends, family, and co-workers, I may start to feel really good about myself – but it might be because I’m putting them down, in my mind. And this fake sense of security – which is rooted in comparison – is so fragile, because the minute someone’s life seems better than mine, my sense of security starts to crack.
So, because Nouwen is so much more articulate than I am, I want to share his thoughts about how to stop comparing yourself to others and start celebrating them, and why it’s essential that we find our security in God’s love. We have to realize that other people will never be able to provide the sense of security that we need, and we can’t hold them accountable for that. Instead, we have to be rooted in God’s love, and from there, we’ll be able to find joy in relationships.
“If we want other people to give us something that only God can give, we become a demon. We say, “Love me!” and before you know it we become violent and demanding and manipulative. It’s so important that we keep forgiving one another—not once in a while, but every moment of life. Before you have had your breakfast, you have already had at least three opportunities to forgive people, because your mind is already wondering, What will they think about me? What will he or she do? How will they use me?
To forgive other people for being able to give you only a little love—that’s a hard discipline. To keep asking others for forgiveness because you can give only a little love—that’s a hard discipline, too. It hurts to say to your children, to your wife or your husband, to your friends, that you cannot give them all that you would like to give. Still, that is where community starts to be created, when we come together in a forgiving and undemanding way.
This is where celebration, the second discipline of community, comes in. If you can forgive that another person cannot give you what only God can give, then you can celebrate that person’s gift. Then you can see the love that person is giving you as a reflection of God’s great unconditional love. “Love one another because I have loved you first.” When we have known that first love, we can see the love that comes to us from people as the reflection of that. We can celebrate that and say, “Wow, that’s beautiful!””